Heading in the Right Direction, Part 6: Deliberate Practice

“The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.” It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.”     Geoff Colvin

Recently I came across a concept called “deliberate practice” and it has radically altered the way I approach educating my artist self. Deliberate practice was first introduced by Professor of Psychology, K. Anders Ericsson and his team of researchers, who spent 25 years interviewing and analyzing experts and world class professionals in many fields. They found little evidence to support two major assumptions many of us hold. The first is that talent is a major factor in becoming great at something. And the second is “practice makes perfect.” 

Consistently and overwhelmingly, evidence shows that experts are always made, not born, and not all practice makes perfect. You need a particular kind of practice – deliberate practice – to develop expertise. In an article written for the Harvard Business Review, Ericsson and his colleagues pointed out that “when most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.” 

We all know artists who put in massive amounts of time painting, but whose work hasn’t changed or grown in the 10 or 20 years they’ve been at it. That’s because just putting in the time isn’t sufficient if we’re spending that time doing what we’re already good at. That kind of activity simply maintains the skill levels we probably reached long ago. And more to the point, doing what we’re already good at is the opposite of deliberate practice. 

So just what is deliberate practice?

  • – Deliberate practice is a highly specific activity related to the skill sets required in a chosen field that is designed to build on strengths, improve weaknesses, and stretch the individual beyond his or her current abilities.
  • Deliberate practice requires active focus; always looking for the next missing link, the next level of improvement, the next skill that needs to be mastered.
  • Deliberate practice is highly demanding mentally.
  • Deliberate practice is not fun, it’s not play, and it’s not inherently enjoyable (however enjoyment can certainly come with the results). 
  • Deliberate practice requires a strong inner drive, motivation, passion, and commitment to engage in the practice activities and projects. 
  • Deliberate practice requires a significant investment of effort over time (researchers have determined that it takes a minimum of 10 years or 10,000 hours to become an expert at something).
  • – Deliberate practice requires observation and feedback on results and making appropriate adjustments.  

Deliberate practice is one of the models for development of expertise and has been used extensively in the fields of sports, music and business.  I have found that deliberate practice concepts can also be used to help us map our artistic journey. A persistent and passionate focus on those aspects of picture making that we can’t do very well – our “missing links” is the stepping stone to getting where you really want to go with your art. Begin with that on-going and ever expanding list I talked about in Part 5 and stay tuned!

Happy Painting!    

10 thoughts on “Heading in the Right Direction, Part 6: Deliberate Practice

  1. Ruth Armitage

    This is a terrific article Donna! Thanks for sharing. It really encourages me to work hard at improving my weak areas and do the hard work it takes to become a better artist.

  2. Wilbert Fobbs

    Donna, this is a very good blog topic. I’ve been using deliberate practice for years and recently included this impactful concept in an essay. However, I do not agree that deliberate practice should not be fun or play. Just go to basketball and watch the players practicing. You will probably notice that they are playing, having fun, doing some trick shots, smiling, and teasing the announcers. Players who sit on the bench alot, have more fun and play during practice than during the actual game. Some ballerinas ( including my daughter) will tell you that their practice is sometimes play and it is fun.

    The legendary watercolor teacher Ed Whitney, said that his drawing practice gave him a “rich source of entertainment. That sounds like fun and play. In fact, he even had strategies to make the practice even more fun and playful.

    Futhermore, it is jumping to conclusions to assume that the lack of deliberate practice is the cause of an artist not showing improvement over a ten year period. What’s wrong with an artist choosing to be content with his level of painting? I looked at a ten year period of Matisse’s work and found no distinguishable improvement–same for Rembrandt.

    We have to be careful that we don’t turn good concepts into doctrines, and get into a slavish adherance to rules, “shoulds”, and suppose to’s.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Wilbert – thank you for your thoughtful comments! I agree with you that practice – and even Deliberate Practice – can be fun. And certainly we all differ in our definition of what constitutes “fun” or “play”. What was most interesting to me was the concept of “Deliberate Practice” activities as opposed to the kind of “practice” activities that most of us are used to. Although the concept of Deliberate Practice is tied to the making of experts, great achievers, and world-class performers, I believe that some of the concepts can be applied to mapping a personal art journey.

      Anders Ericsson, who advanced the concept of Deliberate Practice, said, “It’s a myth that you get better when you just do things you enjoy.” I read Ericsson’s article on Deliberate Practice as well as a book on the subject – Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. Here’s what Geoff Colvin says about the “fun factor”: Deliberate Practice ……….”could be described as a recipe for not having fun. Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. Instead of doing what we’re good at, we insistently seek out what we’re not good at. Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those over and over. After each repetition, we force ourselves to see – or get others to tell us – exactly what still isn’t right so we can repeat the most painful and difficult parts of what we’ve just done. We continue that process until we’re mentally exhausted. Ericsson and his colleagues stated it clearly in their article: Deliberate Practice ‘is not inherently enjoyable.’ If it seems a bit depressing that the most important thing you can do to improve performance is no fun, take consolation in this fact: It must be so. If the activities that lead to greatness were easy and fun, then everyone would do them and they would not distinguish the best from the rest. The reality that Deliberate Practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that most people won’t do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more.”

      In this series, I really wanted to underline the distinction between the concepts of practice and Deliberate Practice. I have known many artists and non-artists who believe that painting is or should always be fun. Holding on to that mindset can be a recipe for creative block and the abandonment of painting altogether. If someone believes that painting should always be enjoyable, fun, and not a lot of hard work they can easily believe that something is wrong with them when they discover that it’s not always so.

      I disagree with you about Matisse. His work, as well as his thoughts and ideas about art changed and grew over and over again throughout his life – and more than most artists, actually. I don’t see anything wrong if an artist chooses to be content with his level of painting and stays there forever. However, I’m assuming that anyone reading this series has a desire to become a really good painter and I doubt that anyone reading this series has a goal to be just an OK painter. My objective in this series is to share new information I’m excited about that might help my readers become really good painters.

  3. D Johnson

    In “Moonwalking with Einstein” Foer worked with Ericsson to increase his memory from average to particpating in national memory competitions. He succeeded with “deliberate practice” and expert mentoring. The OK plateau was not good enough for those who wanted to excel. Last week I wrote about this in my art journal and it was exciting to read about it again in your blog. Thanks for sharing

    1. Donna Post author

      Thanks David, for your thoughful comments. “Deliberate Practice” is a concept that holds much fascination to me in terms of what an artist can accomplish if he has enough passion and motivation. Thanks for your addition to the conversation. .

  4. Patrick

    Hi, Donna,

    I am an artist and am just now reading Colvin’s book. I was wondering: what do you find to be good deliberate practices for painters? Specifically, what kinds of exercises do you do? I want to design a deliberate practice for myself, and am having a bit of trouble conceptualizing it. What do you think?


  5. ambal

    I’m new to your blog, but not new to your work. I’ve admired your work for many years and now these posts are most interesting. I’m still a relative beginner in watercolor painting. It’s challenging and each attempt shows me much room for improvement. I try not to dwell on that as a negative but instead focus on the many options I have to try in my next effort. Anyway, the comments about deliberate practice not being play or fun really resonate with me. A pet peeve of mine is hearing the words “just play and have fun!” with reference to developing art skills . This is especially frustrating in a class where I think to myself… but I’m not here to have fun, I’m here to learn something I don’t know! So, I’m thrilled to hear that I’m on the right track. Deliberate practice is hard work, requires concentration, and you’ve reminded me that focusing on that alone is a worthy goal for now. Thank you for these posts, Ambal

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Ambal,
      I agree with you that it’s annoying when someone says that painting is or “should” be fun. To become good at anything, whether its painting, playing a musical instrument, or mastering a sport, takes desire, determination, commitment, and a lot of hard work. Albert Einstein said “Genius is 99% hard work and 1% talent.” Many believe that being a successful painter is the result of 99% talent and 1% hard work. Those are the people who don’t want to do the hard work. In my own experience, I worked very hard, and continue to work hard to aquire every skill I have – nothing came naturally for me. I sometimes think that my “talents” if I have any, are passion and persistence. For me, the “fun” is the magical feeling that results when my passion and persistence pay off and I have a painting I love.

  6. Sophie

    Hi Donna, I just came upon your blog by chance and have spent 2 hours tonight reading it. I want to thank you for your message here that “painting is not supposed to be all fun, all the time”.

    Similar to Ambal, I am pretty new to painting, and I see opinions all over the place that painting should be fun and if you don’t enjoy it all the time, then you shouldn’t be doing it. I think that’s a damaging message – because it can be hard work! There have been a few times when I doubted myself, thinking “well, this is hard and I’m frustrated and to heck it – maybe I shouldn’t bother with painting, because I’m not having fun right now”. But I keep at it and I’m getting better. And then, sometimes, I can feel all the lessons from my “bad” paintings clicking into place when a painting is going well. That is satisfying enough to keep me going. It’s great to read your post that affirms I am indeed going in the right direction! Thank you!


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